Marginalia on Joi Barrios’ Poetry of Women Liberation

babaeOne of the first collections of poems I read after deciding to read poetry earlier this month is the book of poems by Filipina poet and women’s liberation advocate Joi Barrios, Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma (To Be a Woman is to Live at a Time of War).

I read the book because it talks about how it is to be a woman in the Philippines, how despite the supposed empowerment of women innumerable aspects still shackle them, and how intricate the struggle to truly emancipate women is.

In the academe, particularly in the Humanities Departments of which I am a product, Barrios’s poems because of their focus on women oppression and liberation would automatically be categorized as exponents of feminism.

Yet feminism is a much-abused term. And I don’t know how the word as it is commonly understood today can properly account of these poems. Torn out of history, feminism has come to mean vague exhortations of “girl power” – from Sarah Palin to the Power Puff Girls.

Imperialist hawks use it to justify wars of aggression to free women from burkas. The corporate media equates it with the ability to consume beauty products, to flaunt bodies and luxurious lifestyles, and to follow well-paying individual career tracks. In short, the emancipatory core of feminism was emasculated by its appropriation into the logic of capital.

Yet even feminism’s progressive kernel has been fraught with contradictions. Since its rise with the advent of modern capitalist production in the 19th century feminism missed, in the words of the Indian Maoist Anuradha Gandhi, “understanding this oppression as linked to the wider exploitative socio-economic and political structure.”

Consequently, the various strands of liberal, radical, socialist, postmodern, and multiculturalist feminist movements “have at best benefited a section of middle class women but left the vast mass of oppressed and exploited women far from liberation.”

A Woman’s Voice

Published in 1990, Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng overcomes the narrow limits imposed by a contemporary feminism criticized by Nina Powers as constructing the One Dimensional Woman and the more traditional strand concerned purely with gender issues.

Through her poetry, Barrios illuminates the different angles of women oppression and their struggle for another world for women and all the oppressed and exploited people who fight alongside them.

All men and women belonging to the toiling classes of workers, peasants, and even the petty bourgeois suffer from the class oppression of the ruling classes.

In a semi-colonial country like the Philippines, the toiling masses share the additional burden of national oppression by imperialist powers like the US and their local puppets of big compradors, big landlords, and big bureaucrats.

But apart from class and imperialist oppression, women also carry the burden of gender oppression – from the more visible domestic violence, rape, prostitution, discrimination, to the systemic subjugation of women by men or their being viewed as sex objects.

In her poetry, Barrios seizes on these multifarious realities that women experience everyday and render them into poetry. Concentrating all the complex richness of the Filipino women’s condition into lines of verse, Barrios lends her voice to those who are said to “hold half the sky.”

The book is composed of 48 poems in Filipino complete with a corresponding English translation that are divided into 5 sections based on themes representing different facets of the conditions of women and their struggles:

I. Babae Akong Namumuhay nang Mag-isa (Woman Alone)

II. Usapang Babae (Woman Talk)

III. Gahasa (Rape)

IV. Pagpaslang /Pagsilang (Slaying / Birthing)

V. Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma (To Be A Woman is to Live at a Time of War)

What follows are some of my notes on the margins of the verses, my own attempts at engaging with the poems as expressions of the woman’s condition.

As a man I must admit to my inability to totally fathom all the layers of meaning embedded in the poems. These can then be read as a cure for my own male chauvinism, one tiny step in man’s marching side by side with women for their emancipation.

Unmasking Myths

The book naturally begins by unmasking the many misconceptions about women propagated in myths, tradition, and works of written literature. There are women writers who committed suicide like Sylvia Plath, the woman pope, women mythical figures, and women fictional characters.

Barrios moreover re-imagines a new interpretation to women characters fashioned by male writers. For instance, the poem “Sumpa” (“The Curse”) goes back to life of cursed women like Lot, Eve, and Pandora and asks the question:

Kapag muli kong marining
ang salaysay na sinusundan ng aral,
itatapon ko ay tanong.
Bakit nga ba lalaki
ang laging nagsusulat
ng kwento ng sumpa?
If I hear
another story strewn with lessons
I will a question hurl.
Why is man
the ready author
of the damning tale?

In “Kina Sinderela, Snow White at Sleeping Beauty” (“To Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty”), a poem addressed to fairy tale figures, Barrios confessed to being enamored by fairy tales but ends by shattering the magical spell the prince charming hold over women.

She also rewrites the myth of Maria Makiling – from that of a seductive, fearsome, vengeful spirit to that of a spirit protecting and rejuvenating nature against humanity’s ravages.

Throughout the book, this thread is extended to challenge the imagination that male writers hold over women as in “Kina Puri at Dolly Montero ng nobelang ‘Mga Ibong Mandaragit’” (“For Puri and Dolly Montero of the novel ‘Mga Ibong Mandaragit’”).

This particularly figures in a reply to Alejandro G. Abadilla entitled “Ako, babae, ibang daigdig” (“I, woman, another world”) which problematizes how the “I” of Abadilla in his seminal modernist classic “Ako ang Daigdaig” (“I am the World”) can speak for the condition of women.

All in all, we conclude that a common theme uniting women through generations is the yearning for liberation. The poem “Kay Salome, ang tauhang hindi napabilang sa ‘Noli Me Tangere’” (“For Salome, the character deleted from the ‘Noli Me Tangere’”) ends with these powerful lines:

Tulay sa agwat ng mga dekadang
naghihiwalay sa atin
ang iisang pangarap:ang makamit ang kalayaang magtakda
ng sariling buhay
sa anumang panahon.
A bridge to the chasm of decades
that keep us apart
is our dream: to earn the freedom to shape
our destiny
at whatever time.

Sisterhood and Motherhood

The second part of the collection begins with the poem bearing the same title as the section, “Usapang babae” (“Women talk”). This is an invitation to other women for a conversation: “wife of my lover, lover of my husband, lover of my lover. Still, my sister.” The poet’s gesture to Salome extended to her own contemporary women.

“Sa aking katulong” (“To my housemaid”) is about a middle class intellectual who is also woman passing on the burden of domesticity to her housemaid who is another woman. Since the emergence of private property and class society, women have been relegated to domestic life. Class is the limits of sisterhood.

Then there’s “Dalawang tula tungkol sa pagsisilang at hindi pagsisilang ng bata” (“Two poems about the birth and non-birth of a child”) about giving birth and abortion.

In a reversal of role, “Oyayi sa aking ina” (“Lullabye for my mother”) rehearses the irony of the times wherein daughters have been pushed to act to transform an unjust social system and thereby to sing lullabies to mothers who are worried for their safety.

“Liham kay Inay” (“Footnote to Mother”) follows in the vein of “Oyayi sa aking ina” as a poem of a young woman leaving her mother to join the revolution:

Hindi ko naunawaan ang iyong pananalig
sa mga milagrong bunga ng pagtitiis
Tulad ng hindi mo pag-unawa
sa paghahanap ko ng paliwanang
sa pang-aapi’t paghihirap.
Dito tuluyang napatid
ang taling nagdugtong sa aking buhay
sa iyong sinapupunan.
I cannot grasp your belief
in miracles
just as you could not understand
my faith
in the people’s struggle
With this,
the cord
is finally severed.

This poem holds a dialogue with another more famous poem, Khalil Gibran’s “On Children,” a poem also recited in Lualhati Bautista’s novel Dekada 70 by the protagonist to her mother before he leaves the city to join the armed struggle against the unjust ruling order:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
Ang inyong anak ay hindi niyo anak.
Sila’y mga anak na lalaki’t babae ng buhay.
Nagdaan sila sa inyo nguni’t hindi inyo,
At bagamat pinalaki niyo, sila’y walang pananagutan sa inyo.

This sequence regarding motherhood and children reaches its pinnacle near the end of the book with the poem “Awit sa mga Bata” (“A Song for our Children”) wherein this time it is the mothers who build revolutionary families and when needed must part with their children:

Sa gabi ng himagsikan,
ang awit ng magulang
ay awit ng mandirigmang
kailangan lumisan para sa bayan.
Come the night of revolution
the songs of those with children
will be the songs of the warrior
who leaves to fight for the Motherland.

Violence Against Women

As I have expected from the very first page of the poetry collection, Joi Barrios does dedicate a number of poems on the issue of violence against women. “Latay” (“Silences”) and “Ilang Pahina mula sa Tala-arawan ng Isang Maybahay” (“Pages from a diary”), for instance, are about domestic violence.

“Paninda” (“Wares”) graphically captures the condition of women reduced into sex objects in the way they are treated as pieces of flesh and organs being weighed and sold in the market:

Lagi’y may timbangang
sumusukat sa aking halaga
dalawang tumpok ng nakabuyangyang na suso,
isang guhit ng nakabukang hita,
presyuhan niyo ang hipo
na mas mababa
sa lamas at lamutak.
There are and always will be
scales and weights
to measure my worth.
Two mounds of offered bouncing breasts,
a slice of spread-out legs
bid your caresses
a little lower than the price
of a good and thorough mashing.

Other aspects of this violent objectification (and thereby dehumanization) of women is explored in the poem “Sabon” (“Soap”) where it is shown that in TV ads women either make themselves beautiful with soap to entice men or make use of detergents for laundry to please their husbands.

Meanwhile “Gahasa” (“Rape”) speaks bluntly of the way rape victims are abused twice – first in the actual incident and second by the disgrace they are made to endure in the investigation and the often sensationalized legal proceedings.

In the poem “Puta” (“Whore”), Barrios laments how a patriarchal society categorizes women into either virgins or whores:

Puta ang bawat
babaeng napalabas,
naitulak palabas
o kusang lumabas
sa unang sisidlan
upang magtungo,
manatiling nakakulong
sa ikalawa.
Whore is any woman
who happens to be outside,
or is thrown out,
or has decided to step out
of the first cell,
to move over,
or get trapped,
or stay locked up
forever and ever
in the second.

In “Kasalo” (“Dinner Partner”), Barrios takes the cudgels for women by answering back emphatically: “A woman is not rice / served at the table of matrimony… A woman is not meat / fingered and weighed… A woman is not dessert / you eat when satiated.”

Violence of Counter-Resistance

Ultimately, resistance against the systemic violence of a bankrupt social order cannot anything but be violent. Because the few who possess wealth and power utilizes violence to perpetuate their domination, so the dominated must counter with force.

The Indian novelist Arundhati Roy poetically describes this as the “violence of counter-resistance.” In “Pagpaslang” (“Slaying”), Joi Barrios also calls for the killing of all words that degrade women not as revenge but as pursuit of justice (Hindi paghihiganti / kundi pagbibigay-katarungan.).

One of my favorite lines from the book is from the poem “Liham ng pag-ibig mula sa isang nagsisimulang feminist” (“Letter from a neophyte feminist”) because they might as well apply to me and I can imagine my life partner Sheila talking like this:

Mahal pa rin kita, sinta,
sobinista ka man at kalahati.
Nagpasya lang akong
Mahalin din ang aking sarili.
I still love you,
chauvinist that you are.
I just decided
to love myself too.

But the struggle for liberation and the “violence of counter-resistance” that must come with it transcends the sphere of discourse and the particular sector of women, lessons first synthesized by the country’s pioneer women’s liberation group Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (MAKIBAKA) and its successors.

The poem from which the title of the book is taken “Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma” (“To Be A Woman is to Live at a Time of War”) is a stark reminder of the materiality of women oppression, the dangers constantly threatening women in a patriarchal class society:

Walang sandaling
walang panganib.
Sa sariling tahanan,
ang pagsagot at pagsuway
ay pag-akit ng pananakit.
Sa lansangan,
ang paglalakad sa gabi’y
pag-anyaya sa kapahamakan.
No moment
is without danger.
In one’s own home,
to speak, to defy
is to challenge violence itself.
In the streets,
walking at nightfall
is to invite a stranger’s attack.

The struggle for women liberation cannot hence be divorced from the material conditions of neocolonial and semifeudal that are at the base of women oppression, a point Barrios reaches in “Sa Aking Inang Bayan” (“Mother Country”):

Bihag ang babae
na kailangang palayain
sa bitag ng dayuhan,
musang pinag-aalayan ng tagumpay,
paralumang nakadungaw sa bintana
ng labanan.
Woman is captive
to be freed,
muse offered victories,
maiden looking out of the window
of the revolution.

The motherland is presented as revolutionary and not just in the dominant imagery as the suffering Madonna. For in the final analysis, the struggle for the emancipation of women is part of the struggle for real democracy and national liberation as are the problems it seeks to resolve:

Sa huling pagsusuri,
ang suliraning pambabae
ay usapin pa rin
ng mga uri.
The final burden,
Is the burden of class.


  1. Hi! May I know where I can get a copy of her book? I’d like to use Joi Barrios’ poems for my research paper in Filipino. Hoping for your immediate response. Thank you!

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